Friday, 22 September 2017

MFA START

I was walking from my house to university when I saw an elderly gentleman snatch something up from the ground with a look of sheer glee in his eyes. As I approached, I wondered what he had found that gave him such pleasure. On the ground were a few chestnuts and I immediately realised he must have spied and grabbed something of a prime example.

I always enjoy September. After completing my undergrad many many years ago, I moved back home to Ireland for a few months. Having spent the best part of my life (up to that point) in school, I found it highly unusual to have arrived at Autumn with no formal education to attend. There was a new sense of freedom with a fear of the unknown. The safety net of my yearly routine had been usurped by impending adulthood.


So yesterday I grabbed a particularly good chestnut from the ground, and after prying open it's spiky shell discovered it was, alas, just two small ones. I couldn't help but want to share in the elderly gent's excitement, bringing back memories of conker competitions at school, collecting the biggest chestnuts from the top of the trees, all the techniques and tricks (pickling in vinegar was supposed to make them tougher). The bittersweet sadness of finding out my prize chestnut was just two little ones felt like an echo of that time spent at home post-graduation. That and all of the emotions of September were defined in a single act. Somewhat appropriate to do this on the way to starting a Masters at university.

Monday, 10 July 2017

DRESS BLUES: PROTEST SONG OR APOLITICAL MEMORIAL?

A look at two different versions of the same song about the small town human impact of an unpopular contemporary American war.


Okay: I had thought about writing this perhaps a year ago, when I first heard the Zac Brown band cover this song. Not sure why I hadn’t taken the chance to write up at the time, perhaps I needed to distance myself from my initial knee-jerk reaction to get a proper think about it and formulate something of a coherent response.

A little background: Jason Isbell was one of three guitarists/singers/songwriters in perhaps my favourite band, The Drive-By Truckers. He left the band in 2007 to an arguably more successful mainstream solo career.
In 2008 the The Drive-By Truckers released Brighter than Creation’s Dark and Isbell released his first solo album. Both albums were included songs relating to the Iraq war. At the time, I compared Isbell's Dress Blues to the Drive-By Trucker's The Man I Shot. The latter being a bloody and visceral Neil Young style guitar and vocal barrage about a veteran returning home and having to deal with PTSD. Isbell’s Dress Blues, by contrast, was a story about how a community deals with the return of a soldier in a coffin. On first listen I thought perhaps Dress Blues didn’t say enough about the war, but in retrospect its words and delivery ring heartbreakingly true.

You could say this a song I hold dear. I first heard the Zac Brown band version about a year ago. I quite enjoyed it.

I guess the crux of my emotion towards this cover comes from is in the changing of one lyric:

What did they say when they shipped you away
To fight somebody's Hollywood war?

to…

What did they say when they shipped you away
To give all in some God awful war?

So why is this change important? Well, for a start, why change any lyric? In any song? Historically because a particular lyric might offend, or be unsuitable. Lets first analyse why this particular line is important to the original: it’s the only line throughout the entire song that could be interpreted as pointing blame. There is one person who’s singular quest for glory has directly contributed to this awful situation. It bothers me that this lyric was changed, but perhaps more that it was changed for something so shallow as to not criticise our leaders for when they make decisions like this.

The Zac Brown version feels a lot like ‘war is bad’  and ‘honour our heroes’ (which are indeed noble themes) but it lacks the the specific condonation of war. Its kind of a wimp out. Call out the masters of war. Call out the phony politicians. Don’t be afraid to feel disgust. Remember that its your job as a musician to point the finger. In this version there is no link between the atrocity of war and the people who are directly responsible for it. Its as if war is just something that happens from time to time and people have to deal with it.

It might have something to do with the apolitical image Zac Brown has, but the frequent use of his music by Jeb Bush at political rallies might go some way as to explain this strange change in lyric. It could also be argued that this single inflammatory lyric needed to be changed to move the song away from a ‘protest song’ towards a more reflective and humble piece, as if a single line of protest would somehow distract.

If we take a look back through specifically war-related protest songs (Masters of War, War Pigs, Fortunate Son, Rich Man’s War, etc) one of the key themes is bypassing the propaganda to unveil the overarching function of war: to make money, for political gain, to be victorious, to win popularity, to get a second term, and so on. These songs direct anger at war’s beneficiaries, who are treating people like pawns while they hide behind desks.


Teenage me protested Bush & Blair whilst listening to the Drive-By Truckers. I think I’ll stick with Isbell’s Dress Blues if I can.

Friday, 16 June 2017

COMPUTERSPIEL & TRAVEL

Without wanting to come across as some kind of travel blog, I'd just like to post a few quick photos from my recent inter rail trip around Europe. It was really great and refreshing to spend time in cities rich in culture and with a creative heartbeat.

Quite a shock to see how much Berlin (& its art scene) had changed since I was last there. Still had the Warhol banana graffiti signifying the location of an art gallery, which was useful as some were a little hard to spot. It was also excellent to visit the Computerspielemuseum which exhibited a few nice examples of Game Art.

















Tuesday, 21 March 2017

DIGITAL AXIS

CATEGORY OF THE WEEK - DIGITAL

Art website Axis has selected one of my pieces as part of their 'Category of the Week', with a focus on Digital art for this week.




You can view the rest of the art on their website here. The other digital artists are absolutely worth looking into also.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Why do I like the Drive-By Truckers?

Or more accurately, why do we like the Drive-By Truckers?

In the days following the US elections, I listen to the latest album by Alabama band Drive-By Truckers, entitled American Band. The album is a snapshot of the increasingly polarised US of the past year. Songs about race, riots, high school shootings and politics. It’s a call to arms that lost the band a great deal of their followers. 

But this isn’t about American Band, its about how a group of seven lads on the Northern Irish border got into this band in a really, really big way.

It started in 2003 when one of my friends shoplifted Decoration Day from Virgin Megastores in Derry because he liked the cover. I guess I have Wes Freed’s incredible album artwork to thank for kickstarting me into this band. We were seven teenagers from about 14-18 and into art, literature and music. I’d say we were fairly atypical for kids that grew up in a small rural village. We sat around in the garage after band practice and listened to Decoration Day. I recall my first impressions as being a little kooky, a little heavy and a little country. The opening song, about incest in the deep south, begins a cappella until the rest of the band are introduced, building up to a glorious chord progression complete with pedal steel guitar and upright bass. The closest band I could think of at the time was the Eels.



Decoration Day went back in the CD collection and somewhere along the line someone got Souther Rock Opera and The Dirty South. It was at this time I got into the band in a serious way.

Decoration Day’s title track is a tale of deep-seated petty intergenerational family rivalry certainly strikes a chord. The narrator (Jason Isbell) has a decidedly removed delivery from the deeds and motives of his hated and ultimately understood father. Without trying to go too deep there are themes that resonate with the political system and religious rivalries Northern Ireland is infamous for. Of course, I didn’t realise this at the time. 

Isbell doesn’t even divulge what motivated his father and instigated the historic rivalry, but focuses more on the short vignetted brutality and emotional dissonance caused. To us, the Catholic/Protestant divide was certainly visible but it didn’t matter as we were a mixed group of friends. I identified with the singer’s take on the story and his vitriol to the historic feuding in the song.



I’ve always said that the DBTs write songs that have dumb music and clever lyrics, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. In 2003 I was in a garage band trying to play songs by Neil Young, The Who, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. We chugged along trying to land the musical acrobatics before dawning on the realisation that we could just chug along ourselves and it sounded pretty good. It was at this time I really got into primal fuzzy garage riffing typified by Ronnie and Neil from Souther Rock Opera. Again, a simple Sabbath/Young esque chordal descent creates the luscious audio carpet for a tale of southern racism via music, name dropping Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, culminating in a battle cry tale of Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, complete with three guitar harmony. Wow!



Putting People on the Moon, from The Dirty South, could have been written about any town that experienced hardship. Our own village was famous in the Irish linen days, and many of our families worked in the local mill. The mill was shut down about the time of that album due to production going to Africa (and leading to the company folding). The feeling of angry acceptance captured in this song could be felt throughout the village for years.



It’s difficult to say why a random and still largely unknown oddball American band became the favourite band of a small group of teenagers from the rural Northern Ireland border. To this day, I’ve bought every album, spin off and DVD, and we’re all going to see them again in February.

Recently one of my friends said he was glad that, out of all the music we listened to as teenagers, this was the band that stuck. I’ve got to agree.

Friday, 23 September 2016

GAMEDEV

I've occasionally dabbled in game development, having a handful of projects, some completed and some not so completed. I really enjoy the process of making, coding, artwork and music.

Although this is not a development blog, I'd like to include a few details of a game and talk through my choices. The game is a modern take on 90's computer platformers, with inspiration from shareware titles and characters of the era. Computer platform games often lacked the sheen of their console counterparts, but they had an endearing clunkiness and idiosyncratic charm of their own. This has generally been overlooked, with modern indie games typically paying homage to more popular NES, SNES and Sega titles.

Although this will probably a widely unpopular decision, I've tried to capture the stiffness and primitiveness of the system in my game. Being bluntly honest, the 'retro' style for indie games has been done to death. I couldn't see myself making this game with any other way, as the graphic style and control style were essential to the core themes of the game.

Without going into too much detail (for now) the game was inspired by Duke Nukem Forever and the movie 'The Wrestler'.

I enjoyed Duke Nukem Forever (played it to the end) but it wasn't the Duke game that I wanted.

I wanted to explore the idea of a 1990 video game mascot, trying to make it in a 2016 game. The main character is old and withered beyond his days. No longer the macho man world-saver, years of hard living, steroids and substances have taken their toll. There hasn't been an alien invasion in 15 years and he is trying to find his place in a society where his heroics are largely forgotten. There are parallels here to The Wrestler but also generally film, sport and music personalities. It's a little bit about celebrity culture with a knowing wink.

I'd like to share some graphics from the game: two things I worked on yesterday. One is the scores: when you collect an item you get either 100, 500 and 1000 points.


The scores get incrementally taller. The other is a gun pickup, which gives you 10 ammo. 


I settled on the blue gun, rather than have it realistic and grey. Also, there is a lot of grey in the background tiles and I'd like the item to stand out as such. The blue is a colour associated with the main character too. I wanted to have shooting (aliens) in the game to be something of a secondary task, with actual platforming and puzzle solving the main thing. There will be some ammo throughout but not much, and as the main character is now old, his aim will be somewhat wonky. Designing a gun for a game also reminded me of the recent issues with the gun emoji (pistol, raygun, water pistol, etc, depending on your OS) with some being interpreted differently and the backlash from gun people.



Here is my colour palette, taken straight from Deluxe Paint (my tool of choice as a youth). I mentioned briefly before about my hate for pixel games. Most of this comes from pixel art that is not true to source. Scaling pixels, too many frames of animation, colours, shaders, screen size, etc. I wanted to get this right, even down to the basic 32 colours. Also, it's great to be limited some times, it can be both a motivator and inspiration.

Monday, 20 June 2016

PRESS

In light of the recent Artist of the Month article on Axisweb.org I have updated my website to include two press interviews.

You can find the details here:

http://www.jasonrouse.co.uk/press/